In 1937, Georgia Turner was 16 years old, a “thin, pretty, yellow-headed miner’s daughter,” living in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Around her neighborhood, Georgia was known for her singing and, more specifically, for singing a song about a house in New Orleans and the sad, poor girl for whom it had “been the ruin of.”
In September of 1937, Alan Lomax and his wife, Elizabeth, with an advance from the Library of Congress, a supply of big, black, blank acetate discs and a portable disc-cutting recording machine, were traveling through the mountains of Kentucky collecting songs. They believed that those mountains had “protected for generations a rich heritage of Elizabethan song, manner, and speech” that was quickly disappearing and needed to be documented and preserved.
On September 15, 1937, the Lomaxs arrived at the Middlesboro home of Tillman Cadle, a coal miner, union activist and lover of Folk music. Through their acquaintance with his wife, New York University teacher Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, the Lomaxs had contacted Cadle in advance, asking for help in finding local singers who would be willing to share their songs. Georgia Turner was among the group he had gathered at his home that day.
When it was her turn, Georgia offered two songs for the Lomaxs to record. The first, with neighbor and fellow-teenager Ed Hunter joining in on harmonica, was called “Married Life Blues.” The second, Georgia’s favorite song, she sang alone.
It started: “There is a house in New Orleans, they call the Risin’ Sun. It’s been the ruin of many poor girl and me, oh God, for one.”
How Georgia Turner knew this song is anyone’s guess. It seems that neither she or Alan Lomax had heard the Ashley & Foster recording from 1933. (See my post of September 6.)
In his 1960 compilation, The Folk Songs of North America, Alan Lomax describes the song as being “so far as I know, unique.” In the first publication of a transcription of the song (done from the recording by Ruth Crawford Seeger) and found in the 1941 songbook Our Singing Country, Lomax wrote: “The fact that a few of the hot jazzmen who were in the business before the war have a distant singing acquaintance with this song, indicates that it is fairly old as Blues tunes go.”
What is known, is that Lomax liked the song well enough to share it with his friends back in the New York City Folk music community. By the early 1940s, people like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger had recorded versions of the song, sometimes calling it “The House of the Rising Sun.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Greenwich Village Folk musician Dave Van Ronk was performing a re-harmonized, minor key version of the song that caught the ear of the new kid in town, Bob Dylan.
In 1961, Dylan recorded his version of Van Ronk’s version on his first album. (No, he didn’t ask Dave first.)
In 1964, the British Invasion band, the Animals recorded their version, markedly similar to Dylans, that stands as the most well known recording of the song.
The Georgia Turner recording would not see the commercial light of day until 2003 and Rounder Record’s release of the CD Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook. It is track 21, entitled “The House of the Rising Sun (Rising Sun Blues)” For some reason the first two words, “There is,” are not there, as if Georgia couldn’t wait for Lomax to get the machine going before she started to sing.
Every time I listen to this recording, I understand more and more what Ted Anthony wrote in his fabulous book Chasing The Rising Sun about how he felt after the first time he heard Georgia sing: “I have just listened to The Moment – the nexus where generations of folk expression and oral tradition flowed in and the seeds of modern recorded, produced, marketed music flowed out. From the little cabin on September 15, 1937, we can chart a direct course into and out of the folk revival, to Bob Dylan and the definitive version recorded by the Animals – and everything beyond, across america and across oceans.”
Thank you, Ted Anthony.
Thank you, Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.
Thank you, Georgia Turner.